“It was the first time that the president clearly condemned hate and white supremacy,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), during a longer conversation about the context of Saturday’s deadly shootings at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas and a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio. “But then, he got political and it was intellectually dishonest.”
Speaking at the White House on Monday morning, Trump declared that with “one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
Continued Trump: “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
Foxman argued that these laudable aims were, however, compromised by the president’s own understanding of the problem.
“No one thought he was going to blame himself [for the shootings] — that was never an expectation,” Foxman said. “But to then blame the internet, and the news media, and mental illness, and not talk about the availability of guns or the lethality of these weapons, that was intellectually dishonest.”
While Trump did talk up certain gun-control measures — such as “red flag” laws that would enable law enforcement to seize weapons from suspect individuals — the US leader declined to address his own record of harshly anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump also raised hackles with a series of tweets earlier on Monday morning in which he suggested that the US Congress combine legislation for stricter background checks on gun owners with “desperately needed immigration reform.” In a manifesto posted online shortly before the attack, the El Paso shooter, a white supremacist, justified the atrocity as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
For Foxman, the true test of Trump’s intentions lies in the measures the administration is willing to take against extremists on the far right in the wake of the weekend’s massacres.
“Politically, this administration has shied away from law enforcement focusing on the far right, perhaps this will be a moment of change,” Foxman said. “Hopefully, these two tragedies will help us refocus.”
Foxman also reflected that historically, concerns over the First Amendment of the US Constitution meant that monitoring the activities of the far right was the preserve of non-governmental agencies like the ADL, rather than the US government. But with the expansion of government surveillance powers to combat terrorism heralded by the 2001 Patriot Act, Foxman said, the challenge in combating the far right today wasn’t so much “constitutional” as “political.”
“After 9/11, we realized that if you couldn’t protect life, you couldn’t protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness,” Foxman said. “Protection of life is the number one priority, which means you have to recalibrate the balance between civil liberties and national security.”
In terms combating of the far right, an effort involving both government and the private sector was needed, he said.
Government agencies had to recognize that “the threat from white supremacists needs to be on a higher level, because the threat to the United States is greatest from the extreme right,” Foxman asserted.
“We have been successful in preventing and controlling the extreme left and the jihadists, but we haven’t done the same job with the extreme right,” Foxman said. “Maybe this will be a turning point for the government to become more active and more pre-emptive.”
Pressure was also needed on the technology sector — which provides the platforms for extremists to spread conspiracy theories and violent incitement — to face up to its own responsibilities, Foxman pointed out. “We have to be very aggressive in challenging that whole industry over their responsibility to act,” he said, with the ultimate aim of preventing far right groups from securely using the internet.
The influence of the internet had transformed the nature of extremism, so that traditional labels like “neo-Nazi” were no longer as precise as was once the case, Foxman noted. An ADL analysis published on Monday pointed out the juxtaposition of the El Paso shooters’ racist loathing of Hispanic immigrants with “derogatory comments about corporations and automation and expresses concern about the state of the environment.” It continued: “These are somewhat unusual — though not unheard of — themes for a white supremacist statement.”
Foxman emphasized that such combinations were the result of the unprecedented opportunity provided by the internet for extreme left and far right to learn from each other.
“Today, there’s a preference for conspiracies over ideologies,” Foxman said.
He continued: “The extremes of left and right reinforce each others’ conspiratorial view of the world. It’s no longer limited to the narrow subject matter that an ideological extremist group decides is important. Extremists today cherry-pick their conspiracies and their enemies.”